Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Elephant Whisperers

Robert Joustra


June 14, 2013

By Robert Joustra

Imagine a rider on an elephant. That, says Jonathan Haidt, is what our conscious, cerebral process is like compared to our unconscious, gut instincts. Our conscious reasoning can guide, but it usually retrospectively justifies and prods where the elephant was going anyway. Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, makes some basic points about moral, political, and religious decision making that pundits and policy makers can hardly afford to miss.

That first basic point is probably his most fundamental, and it has a long history. The idea that habits eventually produce virtue and create instincts which guide us more directly than does conscious reflection is likely older than Aristotle.  In The Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood uses Aristotle to explain women wearing the veil in the Islamic pietistic movement in Egypt. The veil, she argues, is not merely a manifestation of conscious religious thought; it is itself a liturgical act that actively shapes the wearer to be moral and modest. Alasdair MacIntyre made this argument in moral philosophy a while ago, saying that rival concepts of justice are often rooted in rival concepts of rationality, which are narratively and ritually habituated. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch says something similar when he suggests that our gestures eventually become postures. James K.A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, argues that we are fundamentally worshipping and desiring creatures, not thinking ones.

So this is all old hat to religious folks. Or it should be, provided we have not internalized what James Kurth calls the Protestant deformation of the religious, a practice of religiosity so stripped of ritual and liturgy it effectively functions only as an intellectual backdrop to civil religion. But what makes Haidt’s argument interesting is that he applies this anthropological picture to contemporary moral and political debate. His conclusion is that when it comes to morals and politics, we North Americans continue to draw on the bankrupt notion that intellectual debate and argument will convince people; we believe that “rational minds” presented with strong evidence will shift positions and agree with us. According to Haidt, this is almost totally wrong.

Our attitudes toward fundamental categories like morality and justice cannot simply be shifted by intellectual argument because they aren’t formed that way. Haidt makes a long argument about evolutionary psychology to simply say that the beliefs and practices that structure our moral and political minds are more elephant than they are rider, formed not only in early childhood, but also by a certain amount of genetics.

For example, the current frenzy in inter-religious contexts for “civil discourse” taps into something more than a desire for mere civility; it calls for empathy. A rider cannot hear your argument or process it in a way that might shift the elephant if the elephant isn’t already leaning your direction. Our intellects are masterful creations, but they are rarely actual decision makers, and they function better at providing justification for the road more often taken. 

Many political campaigns, and almost every marketing firm, have already figured this out. The so-called collapse of policy debates in North America is due less to a hollowing of politics and more to the realization that rational policy arguments pounded at voters don’t actually win votes. Stories win votes, as well as image, trustworthiness, and feelings of security, equity, and justice. Our modernist minds may be offended by this sentiment, but it is the reality of human nature. A careful, excellent argument is as much about how it is packaged and who delivers it and how, as it is about its actual content. Almost no one has been slower to realize this than academics, who profoundly overestimate the power of cerebral process.

Extending this idea into politics and foreign policy is not vanity or a concession to superficial simulacra. Haidt says that our images of morality and politics are so deeply embedded, through decades and generations of habituation, ritual, and liturgy, that it is extraordinarily hard to get beyond what he calls the WEIRD problem: Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic. Interestingly, the WEIRDer you are, the harder it is to process the argument about riders and elephants and the larger and more powerful you expect your rider to be. And with it comes the attendant false assumption that everyone, everywhere is like that too.

What hope is there for constructive moral and political disagreement then? Almost none, unless we start appealing as much to people’s elephants as to their riders, and unless we understand that as persons and societies we are more bonded by “cultural liturgies” than by “big ideas”. That changes the job description considerably of those of us who want to work in politics. Needed: not more riders, but more elephant whisperers.

- Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College in ?

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”